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Macy’s “studying” China closely, with eye on international growth

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Macy's flagship store on West 34th Street in midtown Manhattan.Photograph by Stan Honda — AFP/Getty Images

Macy’s (M) is a quintessential All-American brand: its Fourth of July and Thanksgiving Day parades are touchstones of U.S. culture, and its Manhattan flagship store a must-see on any tourist’s list alongside the Statue of Liberty.

But the U.S. retailer has been taking a closer look at international markets lately in a bid to sustain its years-long growth streak at a time of limited domestic opportunities for department stores.

Macy’s started e-commerce for international shoppers in 2011, including Chinese residents, encouraged by the heavy traffic to its websites from shoppers living abroad. Then last year, Macy’s announced it would open a four-level, 205,000 square-foot store in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates in 2018, its first store abroad. (Its sister chain, luxury retailer Bloomingdale’s will open a second store in the UAE that year.)

These moves echo those of competitors such as Nordstrom (JWN) and HBC’s Saks Fifth Avenue which are opening stores abroad (Canada) and beefing up their international e-commerce capabilities as the fight for shoppers spills across borders, even for department stores which have traditionally been solely domestic businesses.

While best-in-class among its mid-tier department store peers, ahead of J.C. Penney (JCP) and Kohl’s (KSS), the Macy’s juggernaut has been slowing. In 2014, its sales grew a modest 0.6% to $28.1 billion, making it clear the retailer needs to branch out to grow. To that end, Macy’s has bought luxury beauty and spa services retailer Bluemercury and is looking into plans to launch an “off-price” discount chain. It has also meant going all-in at examining overseas markets more closely, China in particular.

“We have spent a lot of time studying China,” Macy’s Chief Financial Officer Karen Hoguet said at a conference this week, adding though that “we haven’t figured it out yet.” She has been to China twice, while CEO Terry Lundgren has visited China regularly.

As retailers like Tiffany & Co (TIF) and Coach (COH) can attest, China can be a bonanza for Western brands. But those are specialty brands. The competition for department stores is more intense given that many brands they sell are carried by retailers worldwide.

Macy’s has been trying to figure out China for some time but has always approached the Middle Kingdom cautiously. In 2012, Macy’s took a minority stake in Chinese retail company VIPStore as one way in. But its efforts have had some snafus. In late 2013, Macy’s shelved plans to sell a private-label brand online in China the following year, saying it needed to learn more about Chinese customers first. (Other U.S. retailers at the time had also slammed the breaks on their China expansion efforts, including Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue.)

Yet, Macy’s has also kept an eye on the market. Last Black Friday, Macy’s conducted a test on Black Friday that involved offering deals on select items in partnership with Alipay ePass, the digital payment arm of China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba Group (BABA) that processes payments, converts currencies and helps with shipping.

That test was “very successful,” Hoguet said. While Macy’s China plans remain very much in flux, with the company looking at a number of options, Hoguet seemed to suggest e-commerce would be at the heart of whatever it decides to do.

“Ten years ago when we were looking at China, it was – do we want to open or partner with someone to open lots and lots of stores,” she said. “Ten years later, as you might imagine, a lot more is focused on the Internet.”

At the same time, Hoguet was clear that China isn’t the only place Macy’s is studying. “As you might imagine, we get inundated with requests from all over the world for partnerships.”